By Virginia Young
[name withheld] fears he will forever occupy a shameful sliver of cyberspace known as the sex offender registry.
Type in his name in the state’s search engine, and you can see where he lives and works, the cars he drives, along with the crime he committed more than a decade ago: Possession of child pornography — then a misdemeanor.
The registry, [name withheld] said, has cost him jobs, prompted neighbors to distribute fliers about him, and led to his arrest on a trespassing charge last fall when dropping his teenage son off at school.
“At 25, my life basically was over,” said [name withheld], now 36.
[name withheld], however, sees hope in proposed changes to the registry that legislators are debating in Jefferson City.
A diverse smattering of groups — from law enforcement officials to victims advocates — have argued that the current registry, which requires most offenders to register for life, is too much of a blunt instrument.
“They’re all lumped into one category and they all get a life sentence,” said Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City.
Phillips, a retired highway patrolman, is sponsoring a bill that would keep minor offenses off the registry and allow nearly a third of the roughly 14,000 people on the registry to petition for removal from the list within the next 20 years.
A more far-reaching proposal, sponsored by Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, would give all offenders on the list a chance to petition for removal from the list eventually. How long they have to wait would be determined by individual “risk assessment reports” done by mental health professionals.
Both bills have made it out of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee, leaving Republican legislative leaders to decide which bill to present to the full House.
Some lawmakers have qualms about loosening requirements for the registry. Rep. Kenneth Wilson, R-Smithville, and a former police chief, said he “spent a career defending the public, and I think we’ve absolutely ignored a segment of our public, that being the victim.”
The proposals come at time when states across the nation are taking hard looks at their registries.
Most are moving toward more stringent requirements to comply with federal guidelines, said Wayne Logan, a professor at Florida State University’s law school.
“There is a lot of flux right now,” said Logan, author of the book, “Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America.”
Logan said research into the effectiveness of public registries is limited, and offers mixed results.
One recent study showed that while registries can serve as a deterrent, Logan said, they can also promote recidivism by making life too difficult.
“They can never get out from that shadow,” he said.
Eleven years ago, [name withheld], a former Marine, had gotten in the habit of downloading large files of heavy metal music at work from the then popular file-sharing service called Morpheus.
But one day, a human resources officer at his company summoned him to a conference room where two detectives were waiting.
He was informed that images of children in sexual acts had been found on his computer. [name withheld] claimed it was accidental. The images, he said, were embedded in the music files he downloaded and he had no knowledge of their existence.
But prosecutors didn’t buy his story. [name withheld] was charged twice — once in St. Louis County and once in St. Charles County, where police found different images on a disc that he had brought home from work.
[name withheld] pleaded guilty in both instances in exchange for probation and suspended imposition of sentence. The crime, he was told, would never go on his record.
- They always tell you this to get you to plead guilty, even if you are innocent. Never do this, take it to jury trial.
“I was young,” [name withheld] said. “I was naïve. I was scared.”
He now wishes he would have fought the charges.
Daniel Pelikan, the St. Charles County judge who presided over [name withheld]'s case, wrote in his order that “although the defendant did not intend to download and transfer the images to the compact disc, the discs were in the defendant’s custody and control.”
A few years later, new state and federal laws required [name withheld] to register as a sex offender.
Kim Kilgore, a St. Louis County assistant prosecutor who has specialized in sex crime cases for the past 10 years, said one of the images depicted a 4-year-old. And, she pointed out, they were found in a secret, password-protected file. Kilgore also said that according to a Hazelwood police report, [name withheld] admitted downloading the images.
“I don’t have a problem with him being on the sex offender registry,” she said.
But should he be on it for life?
“I think it’s a hard decision,” she said. “As a mom, why not? As a prosecutor, it’s very burdensome for the state to maintain a registry.”
TRIMMING THE LISTTo winnow the registry’s rolls, both bills (HB-462 and HB-589) in the Missouri House would group sex offenders into three tiers. But they would use different criteria.
Phillips’ bill would rely on the severity of the criminal charge.
People who fall in the least serious tier — convicted of crimes such as second-degree endangering the welfare of a child — could petition to get off the registry after 10 years. The second tier — those convicted of crimes such as second-degree statutory rape — could seek removal after 25 years.
The third tier would include people convicted of crimes such as forcible rape and sexual trafficking of a child. They could never get off the registry, unless they were juveniles when convicted. In that case, they could petition after 25 years.
The requests would be filed in the circuit courts where offenders were convicted. To be considered for removal, they could have no additional convictions or pending charges for sexual offenses or felonies, and they would need to have completed probation and parole, as well as a sex offender treatment program.
The Missouri Highway Patrol, which manages the list, calculated that Phillips’ bill would allow the immediate removal of about 631 people dubbed “Romeo and Juliet” offenders — generally older teenagers who had consensual sex with a minor. They would be exempted from registering if the victim was at least 14 years old and the offender was not more than four years older than the victim.
The patrol says an additional 1,111 offenders could petition immediately for removal. Over the next five years, 284 more people would be eligible. Over 20 years, 2,480 more could apply.
At a hearing in February, Phillips’ bill drew support from groups as diverse as the Missouri Sheriffs Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri and Missouri Kids First, a statewide organization that works to prevent child abuse.
“This is a very thoughtful response,” said Emily van Schenkhof, who lobbies for Missouri Kids First. “It really does protect children but highlights a public policy problem” with the registry.
Under the bill, juveniles convicted of sex crimes would still have to register but would not be part of the public list on the Internet.
- Nobody should be a part of an online shaming hit-list, it should be taken offline and used by police only!
County sheriffs lined up behind the bill, saying they have limited resources to track the growing list of offenders. Phillips’ bill “would make it easier to concentrate on the more dangerous offenders,” said Andrea Luntsford, a detective with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department.
MENTAL HEALTH TESTSThe alternative approach — Hinson’s bill — would use mental health exams to determine where offenders should fall in the three tiers. People deemed low-risk could apply to get off the registry in five years. Even people in the most serious tier would be eligible after 25 years, instead of facing lifetime registration.
Supporters of Hinson’s bill said it would inject science into the process and provide more meaningful information to the public, which has become numb to the registry because it includes so many people who are not real threats.
- Inject science? If you did that in the first place, then you'd not have the registry or residency laws, since science & many studies show that they do not do what you think they do.
Sister Mary Ann McGivern, who represented the Missouri Association for Social Welfare at a recent legislative hearing, said many people on the list are unlikely to pose a risk. Some exposed themselves or peeked through windows, she said. Others possessed child pornography or had sex with a younger girlfriend when they were 18.
The registry is “a lifetime punishment for a set of behaviors most of us don’t understand,” said McGivern, who is a Sister of Loretto from St. Louis.
Critics said a new state bureaucracy would be needed to handle the risk assessments required under Hinson’s bill. A fiscal note said the cost to the state was “unknown but considered to be significant, exceeding $100,000 per year.”
Also, the state would no longer be in compliance with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, so Missouri stands to lose federal grants. Those grants have provided $637,905 over the last three years. Much of the money funded grants to sheriffs to buy items such as digital cameras and computer equipment.
Hinson countered that sex offenders would shoulder the cost of the mental health appraisals, which he estimated would likely be “no more than a couple hundred dollars” apiece.
- And that's a couple hundred dollars many of them do not have, due to the laws you are pushing!
He also pointed to a study that estimated the current sex offender registry costs the state and local governments nearly $5 million — for example, by sending people who fail to register back to prison.
- In many cases we've seen, people get more time in prison for failure to register than the original crime.
To fight for Hinson’s approach, some offenders and their families have organized a group, St. Peters-based Missouri Citizens for Reform, and hired a lobbyist.
“This is the only crime in America that’s punished endlessly,” said Sharie Keil, a member of Citizens for Reform.